You had to see and hear Likud ministers savage Ehud Barak this week, with claws unsheathed, to grasp that the elections are already here.

Barak and his tiny Atzmaut party pose no threat to Likud. Even if his party gets enough votes to enter the Knesset, those votes will not come at Likud's expense. Barak is an easy and convenient target for the elected representatives of Likud, and a red rag for those who will vote in that party's primaries. In the eyes of both groups, he is the left winger who dragged their leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, into episodes not worthy of a "national" party, such as the settlement freeze in 2009. Barak is seen as the enemy of the settlements, the man who pushed for the evacuation of the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El.

What MK Danny Danon from the extreme fringe of Likud has been saying about Barak for the past three and a half years (that he is undermining Netanyahu in the United States ) became the mantra this week of Likud ministers. That, of course, was formally sanctioned from the top.

For the moment, at least, the prime minister has shifted from the attack on Iran to an attack on his defense minister. Some think that the more Bibi assails Barak, the higher his popularity on the right will rise. But some have perhaps said to Netanyahu: "If Barak is such a treacherous character, why did you appoint him, make him an influential minister and send him on dozens of important visits overseas, to the White House, to the Pentagon and to the State Department?"

These people may also have said to Netanyahu: "You know, when you were in the opposition, you used to tell your aides, 'Barak is capable of going to war if he thinks it will serve his political interests.' And when the present Knesset was installed and you sent your people to dismantle Kadima, you explained that you were doing it because you didn't want to be politically dependent on Avigdor Lieberman."

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz has asked: "You are willing to be dependent on Barak? Haven't you yet grasped who he is?"

"[Barak] would go the United States," a Likud minister related this week, "and tell the leaders of the [Obama] administration that Netanyahu is a weak prime minister who is being held captive by the extremists in his party on the one side, and by Lieberman on the other. He would tell them that Netanyahu is incapable of making decisions, that he is afraid his government will fall, even though he can co-opt Kadima whenever he wants and be free of the political threats. The Americans got the message and turned up the heat on Bibi in words or deeds, by ignoring him and in other ways. And then Barak would volunteer to deal with the problem and smooth the ruffled feathers."

In medicine there is something called Munchausen syndrome - and also Munchausen syndrome by proxy. In the first case, an individual does himself physical harm in order to be treated, loved and given attention. In the second, an individual does harm to a family member, a loved one or a friend so that he, the assailant, will be able to look after the patient-victim, and demonstrate to everyone his devotion to him. As far as is known, the above-mentioned situation involving the prime minister and the defense minister constitutes the first time a senior politician has been accused of translating this well-known medical phenomenon into political and diplomatic behavior.

What ignited the verbal fireworks between the two? After Netanyahu's return from the United Nations, he received a classified report according to which Barak was planning a defiant exit from the government to set himself apart from the premier and prepare his party for elections. It was also reported to Bibi that Barak and Tzipi Livni had met at a New York hotel two weeks ago, and that Barak had sent his confidant, Shalom Simhon - the industry, trade and labor minister - to probe whether his friend Shelly Yacimovich, the Labor Party leader, would accept Barak as a minister in a future government under her leadership. A spokesman in the defense minister's office stated that the meeting with Livni had been at her request and that nothing special had been discussed.

On Tuesday evening, Channel 10 News led with a report that Barak had broken with Netanyahu because his request to be appointed defense minister in the next government was rejected. Channel 2 News quoted the premier as saying to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, "He [Barak] went to the United States to exacerbate the dispute between us and the Americans." Subsequently, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar attacked Barak sarcastically, and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat scolded him as well. Yisrael Katz, speaking from his huge sukkah in his village, which again attracted thousands of Likud faithful, lashed out at Barak in his inimitable style. Silvan Shalom and the newcomer, Tzachi Hanegbi, were relatively moderate in their comments.

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, who was holidaying in Europe with his family, weighed in strongly, and Yuli Edelstein, the public diplomacy minister, declared proudly that he had warned Bibi three years ago that this would happen. Moshe Ya'alon, who is in charge of strategic affairs and feels he is closer than ever to the coveted Defense Ministry, chipped in with a quip. (By the way, there is another senior Likud figure who sees himself as a realistic candidate for the defense portfolio: Steinitz. Yuval Steinitz. )

Seeing red

The rift between Netanyahu and Barak deepened a few weeks ago when Netanyahu, speaking at a press conference alongside the prime minister of Bulgaria, called on the Americans and the international community to lay down "red lines" in relation to Iran. An hour later, the defense minister's bureau issued a statement saying that any discussion on red lines must be conducted out of the public eye and in full coordination with the United States.

Netanyahu took this as an act of sabotage and a display of disloyalty. Barak's confidants say he had no choice but to issue the statement so as to abate the anger in Washington, and that he went public after having tried several times unsuccessfully in private to persuade Netanyahu to lower his tone.

This week Netanyahu even seriously considered firing Barak, but relented. In 1999 he fired his minister of defense, in a move that ended badly - mainly for Netanyahu.

Sources close to Bibi recalled how in recent weeks he has been compelled, time and again, to clean up after Barak's comments in militant briefings about Iran. Ministers in the "forum of eight" have told him recently that Barak is running wild and has to be restrained.

"This escalation, for which Barak is responsible, has driven Bibi crazy," say people in his close circle. "It became systematic subversion, whether private - in conversations with the Americans - or in public, as in the press statement about the red lines. And then came Barak's latest visit to the United States and his meeting - behind the prime minister's back - with Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago and a close friend of President Obama's. In these past two weeks, it has become clear to us beyond any doubt that Barak is on a political shopping spree and is causing damage, that he is pursuing his own state and political agenda, that he is a loose cannon."

"Barak has known Rahm Emanuel for 20 years, since the period of the Clinton administration," says a Barak confidant, adding, "He meets with him occasionally and did so again on his last visit. All his meetings in the United States are aimed at furthering two goals: to soften the bad relations between Netanyahu and Obama, and to ensure the continuation of the security and strategic cooperation between the United States and Israel.

"It's true that Netanyahu was hurt by Barak's press statement about the public management of the red lines issue," the confidant continues. "But Foreign Minister Lieberman made a very similar comment. The fact is that Barak thinks differently to Netanyahu. Barak is convinced that Israel must preserve maximum coordination with the United States; that the talk about red lines has to take place discreetly. If it is in any case clear from Netanyahu's UN address that the attack will not take place before the U.S. elections, but only next spring or summer - why the rush to go public? Netanyahu is the one who is driven by political interests. Anyone in Netanyahu's circle who claims that Ehud Barak wrecked the relations with the Americans and is responsible for the many mistakes that were made should look in the mirror. Anyone who thinks that our situation in the American arena [in regard to Iran] would be no different if this government had pursued a serious policy on the Palestinian question is lying to himself.

"Does anyone seriously think that it is possible to attack Iran without the Americans? In the past three and a half years we have achieved unprecedented security relations with the United States ... Barak speaks to the Americans in a completely businesslike way. Anyone who is now trying to portray the defense minister as a problematic person is acting from clear political motives. You have to be blind or a fool not to see the motive and the timing.

"It's said that Barak asked for a promise that he will be defense minister in the next government. That is nonsense, arrant nonsense. On the contrary: it was Barak who made clear to Netanyahu the conditions under which he will never agree to serve as defense minister (for example, as an 'expert' minister who is not in the Knesset and does not have a party behind him ). It's said that the cabinet ministers from Atzmaut were going to object to the budget. That is not true, either. Barak told Netanyahu that if the budget is acceptable to Lieberman and to Shas leader Eli Yishai, Atzmaut will not be the barrier to its passage. But you can't on the one hand promise an attack in the summer, and in the same breath talk about slashing the defense budget."

Bibi brought Barak and Labor - which Barak led, at the time - into the government in order to soften its rightist-Haredi-militant image in the international arena. That is the central lesson Netanyahu learned from his first term as prime minister, when he headed a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox government that led him straight to the lower depths.

In the past three and a half years, Netanyahu has been much aided by Barak's PR, whitewashing and finessing services abroad; by President Shimon Peres, who is Israel's great asset and nonconventional weapon; and, to a lesser degree, by Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor, who is very much liked and accepted by the Americans and the Europeans. What will be left to Netanyahu of that arsenal in his next term, if he is reelected? He and Peres are no longer an item. If Dan Meridor runs in the Likud primaries, it's not certain he will be elected. And now his relations with Barak are in serious trouble, too. Who will Netanyahu dispatch to the United States when relations turn sour again? Minister Yair Lapid? Minister Shelly Yacimovich? Really? They should be grateful if they're allowed into the White House through the visitors' entrance.

A winter's tale

On Wednesday, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin had this to say to the Prime Minister's Bureau: "If you intend to call an election, please do it at the start of the winter session [October 15]." The bureau promised yesterday that the decision, and the announcement of whether they will shoot for a new budget or go for an early poll, will be made known before the start of the winter session. Another meeting or two or three, and the prime minister will make a declaration.

Yesterday, Netanyahu met with Lieberman. On Tuesday he met with Eli Yishai. The Prime Minister's Bureau stated that the meeting was intended to examine whether agreement exists on the budget. After the meeting, Yishai hurried to a TV studio to announce that Shas will support the budget, but only if it is a budget "of compassion." He repeated the phrase "a budget of compassion" five times. After the elections, he will support even economic Chmielnitzki-style decrees to get the Interior Ministry again.